Review: Fight Night Round 4 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Fight Night Round 4
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Realistic Boxing/Sports
Release Date: 6/25/2009

Though known for their yearly release cycle on just about every sports game they have, EA Sports haven’t kept to that schedule with their boxing franchise. Dating back to the Knockout Kings years on the PSX, Fight Night has evolved into the best realistic adeptation of the sport on the market, to the point where Round 3 still sells even three years after it’s initial release. Combining sharp, dual-stick controls, jaw-dropping graphics and an apalling amount of commercialization, FNR3 was good enough to move XBox 360 and PS3 systems when they were in their infancy as consumers saw the beginning of what these systems could do graphically, in full 1080p resolution.

Finally, after three years, Fight Night Round 4 is upon us, promising much more than EA Sports is used to giving us in typcical yearly updates; an expanded roster of forty-eight fighters, a vastly improved Legacy Mode, improved controls and an improved experience on XBox Live are just some of the things EA promised us with what they labelled one of the most anticipated releases of 2009. I could definitely concur with the last statement, as I all but frothed at the mouth for my chance at a game that I’ve really been asking for since 2007.

So, after all the hype, and the immersive ad campaign playing up the Mike Tyson vs. Muhammad Ali parallels, did the game come through? Depends on who you ask or what you want. If you want a vastly improved career mode, or a game that plays very similar to FNR3, you’ve come to the right place. But if you’re looking for button-punching controls or a perfect, realistic rendition of the sweet science, buyer beware.

The first thing you do when you fire up the game is enter the tutorial mode, where you’re taught the basics of throwing a punch, defending, and even getting up off the canvas. I’m going to spend the next few paragraphs discussing the controls, as there are changes here that are going to screw up long-time players of FNR3. The Total Punch Control from FNR3 makes a comeback, though body punching has been changed. Now, it’s just a matter of (assuming you’re using the right hand) punching at 3 o’clock for a right hook to the body, or about 5 o’clock for a right uppercut. This means you don’t have to be ducking to throw a body punch (though this will be the case for straights), and can also throw high punches from a crouch, which makes throwing punches more realistic. While it’s possible to go back to the classic control (if you don’t like the new way of throwing haymakers, which requires a shoulder button), I found I couldn’t go back to it after playing with the new system. It’s just easier to stick to the defaults if you keep an open mind. Parrying was removed, and was replaced with a timing system for avoiding punches and countering. In theory, this helps balance as the parrying system was broken by players picking one side to always parry to and get cheap counters, but in reality, it just means that instead of defense being unbalanced, offence is now given an unfair precedence. This is made worse by the fact that unlike the last game, throwing a punch earlier gives no benefit. In FNR3, if you caught someone as they were throwing most punches, it knocked the punch askew, or at least caused it to do less damage. In FNR4, you can basically just slam the crap out of each other with no real consequence. This hurts the realism of the game a bit, and makes this game feel a bit more arcade-y than the last one. Even taking that into account, the rest of your defensive arsenal is borderline useless. You can lean and dodge, but you have to get it nearly perfect to avoid getting cracked. There’s also a new move that lets you weave in, but there’s a delay for it; you do the motion for the move, there’s a half-second pause, and then you do it. You can’t use it strategically; even if you get it off, you’ve been popped twice already. To EA’s credit, they also got rid of the useless taunt feature, and replaced it with a push-off manoeuvre; this lets taller boxers keep their opponents on the outside, and lets people push off on clinches. Still, defence is greatly disregarded in favour of offence.

So the game feels like an arcade game, and defence is nerfed? And there’s an online mode? You know what that means: bring in the punch spammers!

Online play is an absolute mess, mainly because there is virtually no reward for defence. Sure, you can try to wait out your opponent and maybe get a combo, but since defence is nerfed so badly, online and versus matches always end up battles of attrition. Since there’s such an emphasis on punching and hitting more than your opponent, it makes counters that much more important due to the amount of damage they can do. However, those counters also seem to come randomly; when playing other humans, they’re basically a matter of luck, which sucks when matches can boil down to whoever gets the most counters landed. Against the computer, it’s a matter of difficulty; the higher the difficulty, the more computer opponents do counters. It can be really frustrating since oftentimes, you can be punching each other, and one of the shots someone lands just happens to be a counter. Laypeople will have problems adjusting to some of the idiocy they see in this game – like the guy I played that threw 250 haymakers in a match in a despicable slam-and-move strategy, but won because defence is so lousy that it’s impossible to time blocks properly – but serious players will absolutely love the online championship mode, which separates everyone into the three main divisions (light, middle and heavyweight; be careful if you have someone at the low end of that spectrum, as my light heavyweight fighter is having problems getting in on the big guys), and has a great ranking and championship system. Fans of the game will be exceptionally pleased with the system, though it kinda reminds me of Tiger Woods PGA Tour in the sense that, if you haven’t absolutely mastered the game itself the day it comes out, and don’t spend every waking second playing it, you stand no chance of breaking out of the middle of the pack, as everyone above you is doing the boxing equivalent of shooting twenty under par every round.

There are other gameplay changes, one of which is the removal of button punching. I didn’t think this a big deal, but talking to fellow staffers, it about ruined the game for them; sure enough, going to a few forums, I’ve learned that one of the biggest complaints is the way EA’s forcing of players onto the analogue stick. The way I see this, is that if you like analogue punching, you will have no problems adjusting at all to the new standard, but if you were a button-puncher in FNR3, then you will want to play the demo for a bit to see if you can adjust before dropping $60*. EA has stated that they’re thinking of patching around it, but I personally feel that to do that, they will have to sacrifice important things like clinching and pushing (though it should be noted that the digital pad is unused). The other notable change is the between rounds action, which has changed from simulating the cutman and trying to get swelling and cuts taken care of, into a stat RPG-like system where you get points for the percentage of punches landed, whether you stunned or knocked down the fighter in the past round, etc. I hate this change because it unbalances gameplay further; if you’re going to go with a minigame, have it be relevant, like the cut game was in FNR3. One of the best parts of boxing is that between rounds, someone could come back a different fighter. Now, because one quick punch can draw a knockdown, and therefore more points, someone who gets an early start can quickly become unassailable just due to the fact that they’re going to recover more. This is a case of adding something completely arbitrary and game-like to a platform that prides itself on being a simulation, something I’m never going to approve of.

In short, when talking about the game engine, I’m disappointed; for every step EA took forward, they took a step or two back, and I found myself frustrated more than anything when playing this game, especially when playing other humans. With that said, the rest of the game is sterling, starting with the Legacy Mode.

Legacy Mode replaces Career Mode from FNR3, and it’s a night-and-day improvement. Just like before, you have the option of creating a new fighter or using one of the other forty-eight real fighters to work up through the ranks, but unlike before, there’s no arbitrary stages (and thankfully, the sponsors logos are no longer jammed down your throat like before). Creating your fighter is a great experience, as you can select his weight class, look, fight style, and other attributes (which all go into his starting rating), after which his stats are levelled off and you start off in the Amateur tournament. This is basically practise (though you get stat boosts for winning), after which you start off as the 50th ranked fighter, and pick fights to move up the ladder. As you fight, you’re also given popularity ranking (based on your win-loss record, knockouts for and against, and whether you accept or reject challenges), and your pound-for-pound rating (which is loosely based off of punch stats and who you fight). The fighters you fight – both created and real – are varied enough to make things interesting; styles make fights in real boxing, and that holds true in this as well, with a clash of styles – a puncher against a dancer, for example – usually making for interesting (if unwatchable) results. Just like real life, there’s three belts to fight for, and they all contribute to the real goal of Career Mode: becoming the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.). As you achieve certain accomplishments, you gain steps up the legacy ladder, starting at Prospect (and, if you suck, going down to “Bum”) and going to G.O.A.T., which doesn’t get in the way; you can either go for that top rung, or just fight for belts and/or going up in weight classes. In terms of what a boxing game’s career mode should be, FNR4 nails it.

That said, it’s not perfect. The number one issue I have with career mode is the way your boxer’s stats improve. Minigames are back from last year, but they’re different. The good news is that they’re now more relevant to actual game skills (no weightlifting stuff this time around), but the bad news is that they suck. The main problem with them is that one mistake could be the difference between getting maximum benefit from the drill (points are given based on performance), and getting near minimal games. For one, the games all rely on linking together scores; you get multipliers until you screw up, at which point you start over. This means that if you screw up half-way through, just restart the game through the dashboard (so it doesn’t auto-save), and start again or you’re going to get screwed. Secondly, some of the game are just flat-out dumb. Heavy Bag Push relies on you linking heavy punches high or low, depending on where the marker is, but if you miss the marker – and the marker moves randomly – the bag starts to push you back. Unfortunately, that’s the only way to build power for the right hand, so it’s necessary to play the game. Yes, you have an option to auto-plaY at half-benefit (rounded up), but that defeats the purpose of having this mode. This is another example of an arbitrary game mechanic added in when something more along the lines of a stat management system would have sufficed, and wasted less time.

Compared to the minigame issue, my other complaints are very minor. When you climb up the ladder, you’re going to see boxers rated relatively highly in the standings who have neither the record nor the abilities for their place; I recently fought someone 21st that had a .500 winning percentage, and an overall rating of 64; this is someone who should have been ranked about 20 places down, but instead was fighting me on Pay Per View. Needless to say, finding opponents like this is a godsend as you come up the rankings, but is a bit unrealistic. Also, the one thing they took out this year that I wanted to come back was the purse fighting. Though it would have been useless this year, it would have been nice to see “OK, your fights are now earning a purse of X, compared to Y”, a feature that was actually used effectively in the ancient Genesis title Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing. Still, Career Mode is great this time around, and while it doesn’t have the management bells-and-whistles that I’d like, it has everything else a career mode in a boxing mode needs.

There are other niceties to be had, though chances are good no one’s going to play with them much. There is a great replay feature, but I never really bothered with it much since all my knockouts and all my fights tended to blend together; it’s not like NHL ’09, where you can get a truly special play out of nowhere. There’s also something called ESPN Classic Fights, which puts the scorecard of your best fights into posterity. The game’s way of determining a “classic” fight is a bit suspect; basically, if you go over seven rounds, you’re more or less going to get a “classic” bout, even if one of the boxers is getting dominated. Finally, this seems the best time to discuss the roster of real boxers. There are forty-eight boxers in all, and the advertising has revolved around two of them, as if there would be a debate as to whether a fight between an in-form Muhammmad Ali and an in-form Mike Tyson would be close (Ali would work Tyson in eight). The roster is varied and includes almost every relevant boxer in every weight class, both current and classic (including the classic, angry George Foreman from the 70s), though I think they stretched a bit on some of the fighters. There are fighters I saw in career mode that I could have sworn at first were created but were real, and then there were times that I was like “Vivian Harris shouldn’t be here, he sucks”.

Finally, aesthetics were one of the defining benefits of FNR3; it looked good on the PS2, but was a system-seller because of how amazing it looked on the 360 and PS3. Rest assured, FNR4 is better in every way, shape and form, and is easily one of the best looking sports games on the market, and is in the conversation in terms of best looking games on the market, period. In terms of audio, FNR4 is just as good as it’s predecessor, with a great list of A and B+ list artists, with a heavy hip-hop flavour. As a hip-hop fan, I approve of the Trax roster, which includes a lot of guys the older, more mature heads tell the 50 Cent kiddies about. “Forget that shit, here’s Mos Def”. In the ring, ESPN’s Joe Tessitore returns and is also joined by his regular partner, former Michael Moorer and Mike Tyson trainer Teddy Atlas. These two are magic together for real fights, and that transfers to the game, with Teddy being the star of the show. He tells a lot of stories from his time training with Cus D’Amato, is a master of using similes, and actually taught me a few things, which is surprising considering I’m a boxing fan. In terms of video game commentary teams, these two match up with the team from NHL ’09 as the best.

* EA has confirmed, via their website, that face-button punching will be coming in September.

The Scores
Game Modes: Good
Graphics: Great
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Replayability: Enjoyable
Balance: Bad
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: Enjoyable Game


Short Attention Span Summary
The good news is that Fight Night Round 4 hits all our checkmarks for a good game. It rates well in a lot of different areas. The bad news is that it disappoints in the areas that count. The balance issues simply can’t be overlooked, and turn what would otherwise be a great game into a sometimes frustrating experience. I would recommend this game to people that were fans of Round 3, easily; those people have accepted this game’s inherent flaws, and adjusted to them. With that said, if you’re looking to spend money on one realistic fighting game, this isn’t the one to get. UFC Undisputed has a better fighting engine and much better balance, and is more realistic to it’s native sport than Fight Night and its 75% CompuBox stats. If you can only pick between one, UFC Undisputed is better.

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